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Ray Carney #1

Harlem Shuffle

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From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, a gloriously entertaining novel of heists, shakedowns, and rip-offs set in Harlem in the 1960s.

“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…” To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably priced furniture, making a decent life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.

Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger all the time.

Cash is tight, especially with all those installment-plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace, Ray doesn’t ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweler downtown who doesn’t ask questions, either.

Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa—the “Waldorf of Harlem”—and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do. Now Ray has a new clientele, one made up of shady cops, vicious local gangsters, two-bit pornographers, and other assorted Harlem lowlifes.

Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he begins to see who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?

Harlem Shuffle’s ingenious story plays out in a beautifully recreated New York City of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.

But mostly, it’s a joy to read, another dazzling novel from the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Colson Whitehead.

318 pages, Hardcover

First published September 14, 2021

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About the author

Colson Whitehead

35 books14.7k followers

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 6,538 reviews
Profile Image for Yun.
505 reviews18k followers
December 14, 2021
The dialogue and action were so shrouded in euphemism, so opaque in meaning and intention, alternatively dull and worrisome, that no one could decide what the play was about, if they understood it, let alone enjoyed it.
I can't help but think Colson Whitehead was talking about this very book when he wrote that prescient line into it.

Harlem Shuffle is a set of three loosely-related stories about furniture salesman and reluctant crook Ray Carney. He wants to lead an honest life, but that's not easy as a Black man in 1960s Harlem. So due to necessity and unfortunate circumstances, he keeps getting pulled into dodgy business.

The book blurb promises heists, and I'm immediately thinking of well-planned and well-executed ones à la Ocean's Eleven. But what I got instead were hijinks. Carney and his friends, through schemes and poor-decision making, would cause the sort of trouble that Carney can then only straighten out via crooked ways. Now that sounds interesting enough, but for some reason, it didn't feel compelling when I was actually reading it. Perhaps I'm just not the right audience for this type of gangster noir.

However, an even bigger problem is that the writing style didn't work for me. Instead of leading with contextual information, Whitehead often dropped the reader right into random thoughts or new characters—of which there were many—without explanation. Then after many paragraphs of incomprehensible blather, he finally provides context, at which point the reader would be forced to go back and reread it all again in order to gain understanding. In this way, I read numerous portions of this book many times.

The writing also has a tendency to be unfocused. Even the most straightforward of scenes would stretch to fill many pages, stuffed full of irrelevant musings, asides, and tangents. Those musings often involved characters we don't know or context we don't have, which adds to the confusion. And by the time I've come out of it, not only did I not understand, but I've forgotten where I am in the original scene.

I'm sure there is an interesting story in here somewhere, but my patience was stretched to the limits trying to find it. The third part (the last 100 pages) did finally feel closer to what I expected from the author, as if that was the story he had meant to write all along, but on realizing he was 200 pages short, fluffed out the rest and that's what we got.

This was a pretty disappointing read for me, especially from an author of Colson Whitehead's caliber. If you prefer your stories to be maximumly tedious and difficult to follow, then I recommend this book. For everyone else, I'd say stay away.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
375 reviews2,787 followers
September 18, 2022
Beautiful prose but light on plot and action.

Ray Carney, situated in Harlem, owns and operates a furniture store in Harlem. Carney is straddling two worlds though: the up and up furniture store and the goods that must have fallen off a truck somewhere. Will these two worlds collide? How will Carney navigate these two worlds?

Harlem Shuffle is my first Whitehead novel who is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The prose of the book was at its finest. Whitehead has a very strong command of verbs and adjectives, such a wide variety. His prose truly is a work of art in and of itself. However, this book was light on plot and light on action. I fell asleep twice while reading it.

Overall, Harlem Shuffle was beautiful to read but it was not a page turner.

2022 Reading Schedule
Jan Animal Farm
Feb Lord of the Flies
Mar The Da Vinci Code
Apr Of Mice and Men
May Memoirs of a Geisha
Jun Little Women
Jul The Lovely Bones
Aug Charlotte's Web
Sep Life of Pi
Oct Dracula
Nov Gone with the Wind
Dec The Secret Garden

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Profile Image for emma.
1,782 reviews42.7k followers
January 20, 2023
so this was not a heist story.

or a character story. or a plot story. or a much of anything story?

i never dnf books and i almost found this unfinishable, on top of being unstartable and unmiddleable.

these characters had none of the magic colson whitehead characters usually do for me, and in spite of having significantly more action the story felt...more boring.

i just never connected with this. no matter what i did, and how many times i picked it up, and in spite of it being an objectively fine book, i found it borderline unreadable.

i never, ever thought i'd have a hard time connecting with colson whitehead characters, who if anything i feel too attached to.

so what on earth!

bottom line: ???

currently-reading updates

i have tried to pick up this book seven times, and through no fault of the book's own, i have failed to get past the 25 page mark all seven times.

(this is an actual number that i update every time it happens again.)

nevertheless we persist.

tbr review

a heist story written by colson whitehead?! what did i do to deserve this
Profile Image for Paromjit.
2,501 reviews24.5k followers
August 12, 2021
The award winning Colson shifts genres to write a light hearted and beautifully crafted piece of multilayered historical fiction, crime and family drama, an astutely observed and atmospherically vibrant picture of 1950s and 1960s New York City's Harlem. It depicts the hustles and bustle, the culture, the community, detailing and describing the neighbourhoods, with its wide ranging cast of diverse characters, the offbeat, the high, the low and the shady, amidst a background of social and political change the author provides a commentary on. This entertaining and humorous novel celebrates black crime writers such as Chester Himes, whilst touching on a number of critical areas, political corruption, white privilege, exploitation, race, power, policing, class, ethics and morality, the criminal underbelly, black history and the civil rights movement.

The ambitious Ray Carney is looking to move on from his crooked personal family history, married to Elizabeth, now expecting their second child, he is doing well running his furniture store, but money is tight, his in-laws look down on him, and he dreams of moving to better neighbourhoods as he aspires to climb the social ladder. The respectable side of him juggles with the more illegal parts of his enterprise, while his cousin Freddie manages to drag him into deep trouble as with a planned heist of the Theresa Hotel, the 'Waldorf of Harlem' where it could be predicted that things would go wrong. We follow Ray through time as he tries to negotiate the pitfalls and dangers that come his way, is he going to be able to survive?

Ray finds his eyes opened to the truths of the parts of New York that so often remain below the radar, the powerful elites, mobsters, corrupt cops and other criminal elements. The complex plotting, the comic touches, the great characters, particularly Pepper, and the nuanced storytelling make this a joy to read, whilst showcasing Whitehead's versatility as a writer. The Harlem of this historical period and its community holds centre stage, so wonderfully evoked, so different to the place it is today with the rise of gentrification. Highly recommended. Many thanks to the publisher for an ARC.
Profile Image for Beata.
697 reviews1,058 followers
September 23, 2021
Having read two of Mr Whitehead's novels, this one was on top of my list. What a total surprise it was! A definite and unexpected shift into Harlem in the 1960s, with its bitter humour and portrayal of people and places so well-written that visualising them was not a problem for me. The beginning was rather slow and it took me a little time to get involved mainly due to my lack of knowledge what Harlem was like six decades ago. After some time though I felt more secure in the company of Ray and the company. This novel was the closest I could get to Harlem, I suppose. A reading journey that I will not forget for a long time.
A big thank-you to Colson Whitehead, Little, Brown Book Group UK, and NetGalley for arc in exchange for my honest review.*
Profile Image for Thomas.
690 reviews165 followers
August 28, 2021
4 stars for a book about Harlem, New York city, from the late 50s to the late 60s. The author calls this book "a love letter to Harlem.". This book is more about the changes in culture than about crime . It is narrated by Ray Carney, son of Mike Carney, a small time crook. Ray wants to go straight and opens a furniture store. But he accepts merchandise from questionable people to sell. His contacts with the underworld bring him into dangerous situations. How he resolves them amid the changes in society, including riots and civil rights protests, makes for an enlightening window into Harlem during this period. I recommend it to historical fiction fans and crime fans.
I read this book in two days.
One quote: "Put it like, that, an outside observer might get the idea that Carney trafficked quite frequently in stolen goods, but that's not how he saw it. There was a natural flow of goods in and out and through people's lives, from here to there, a churn of property, and Ray Carney facilitated that churn. As a middleman. Legit."
Thanks to Doubleday for sending me this eARC through NetGalley.
HarlemShuffle #NetGalley
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,846 reviews34.9k followers
November 8, 2021
I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into when I chose to read this book —
I had read plenty ‘about it’. Even before it was released in September of this year — I listened to Colson Whitehead speak about how much fun he had writing it — the first book of a series.
I laughed when he said, “yeah, something a little different”….
when his other two novels : “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” were each very different from each also. But, yes….‘something’ a little different from Colson. …..

I met Colson Whitehead a couple of years ago at UC Santa Cruz (with my friend Margie)…when he did a book-reading for “The Nickel Boys”.
It was so pleasantly surprising to learn how FUNNY-BOUNCY- and ADORABLY-COOL Colson was …. (in his school-boy-t-shirt and keds)…I’m not surprised at all that the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote a *romp*.

So…..I waited awhile to read this book. Mixed reviews were coming out — I was worried I’d fall into the low rating group — why? It just sounded too much like a ‘dude’ book (yes, aware I’m being sexist)…but I was hoping — I’d love it.
I ended up liking it much more than expected—but in order to keep myself ‘present’ - deeply engaged - I found myself …( don’t laugh)…reading at least half of this book OUT-LOUD….(to the air in my house)… maybe our birds were listening?
Once again, I’m so IMPRESSED with Colson….
….the visuals, the crazy characters, (HARLEM itself being one of characters), the atmosphere, the neighborhood, the history of Harlem in the ‘60’s ….(‘The Donna Reed’ show era), the family-business retail life-style living ….(clearly, without having to even be said, it’s a novel about race)…..
but what stands out to me is simply - unapologetically - an old fashion crime-amusement- escapade.

Ray Carney was trying to maintain a legitimate furniture business, while occasionally dragged into devious-sketchy elbow-grease….(thank you cousin Freddie) ….
The relationship between Ray and Freddie was often a kick….
“The waitress walked over and muttered something. Freddie winked at her, plucked a sandwich crust off Carney’s plate and gobbled it up. When she retreated, Freddie said,
‘What’s on around town?’”
“That meant gimme dirt, in his lingo”.

The LANGUAGE is soooo mind-blowing masterful!
Reading excerpts like this out loud become extra sparkly.
“Tonight he was on another Moskowitz rendezvous, but Times Square ‘round midnight was a different creature, an incandescent, stupefying bazaar. White bulbs rippled on and off in waves across bold marquees, thin neon tubes capered and pranced—a pink martini glass, a galloping horse—among a clamor of honks and whistles and big-band brass out of dance halls”.

PARTS WERE VERY CHARMING (can I say that about a crime-family-saga- story?)…..
It has raunchy thrills, squeamish moments, hilarity, pathos, plenty of action —but also….plenty of warmth……

Starting with the protagonists- Ray Carney > his character is so well developed….it’s hard to believe that he isn’t a real person - owner of the Harlem furniture store…..passed down to him by his lawbreaker father. It’s also almost hard to believe that the ���Harlem Furniture Store’, isn’t a real store standing in Harlem ….with the old sign out front reading:
“The ‘& Sons [“The Sign had never been aspirational”]

Given that Ray’s father was a criminal…the way Ray saw things — and perhaps the books strongest themes:
“Living taught you that you didn’t have to live the way you’d been taught to live. You came from one place but more important was where you decided to go”.

Like most Harlemites, Carney grew up with broken glass in the playground,….the smell of gun smoke, thieves, bandits, rooms that smelled like cigarettes and cigar smoke.
Cheap beer soaked into floorboards, revolting stains on an old couch….

Side-street saloons, gamblers, goons, drunks, crooks— illicit business-secret police, roughnecks, bouncing checks, rich people who were as bent as gangsters but didn’t have to hide, uptown train rides, hot dogs…
evening rendezvous’s…..
Balancing straight-lace intentions with tragedies of crime turned out to be rather fun for this normally-non-lethal mobster-underworld reader.
I was reminded of words from Ghandi …..
“you must be the change you wish to see the world”.
Profile Image for Marchpane.
293 reviews2,076 followers
September 18, 2021
‘No New Frontier stretched before him, endless and bountiful — that was for white folks — but this new land was a few blocks at least and in Harlem a few blocks was everything. A few blocks was the difference between strivers and crooks, between opportunity and the hard scrabble.’

What’s a literary superstar to do after winning back-to-back Pulitzers for novels dealing with the more brutal aspects of African-American history? If you’re Colson Whitehead it seems the answer is: write a crime caper dramedy.

Harlem Shuffle takes a trip to its titular neighbourhood during the massive social change of the 1950s and 1960s, through the eyes of Ray Carney. Ray’s a devoted family man; upwardly mobile; owns a thriving furniture store—while running a shady side hustle that keeps threatening to get him in trouble with the big boys in town.

There’s a comprehensive cross-section of New York criminality represented: Ray, with his pretence of being a strait-laced entrepreneur, crosses paths with oily mob bosses, two-bit hustlers, untouchable old money types (‘stone cold original Dutch motherfuckers’), cops on the take, and everyone in between.

The Harlem setting, with its dive bars, greasy spoon diners, Strivers’ Row townhouses, is vibrant and definitely the novel’s greatest asset. Whitehead layers beats of Black history—from Seneca Village to Freedom Riders—throughout the story like a pulse, vivifying that sense of place.

Despite an appealing backdrop and milieu, this novel misses the mark when it comes to storycraft. Too much action happens off-stage, too much of the narrative is taken up with filling in back-stories or catching the reader up between time-jumps, not enough happens in ‘real time’. The best characters (hello Pepper, a gravel-eyed glare in dungarees…) are not given nearly enough to do.

Harlem Shuffle is much lighter fare than Whitehead’s last two outings (you really can’t blame the guy for wanting a change of pace), with all the ingredients for a Fargo-style caper but it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. If you have a special interest in mid-20th century Harlem, definitely check it out.
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,284 reviews640 followers
October 27, 2021
2.5 stars: I really wanted to love “Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead. I’ve read his previous works and enjoyed his literary style. This style didn’t work for me in his story of a shifty, almost crooked, black man in 1960’s Harlem.

I give a novel 50 pages, and if I’m not into it, I abandon. Well, this is Colson, so I persevered. I read almost 2/3 of the story, was about to abandon it, and then it picked up. Did it take over 200 pages to get into the rhythm? Not sure. For me, Whitehead took his literary style and went off on tangents that were not always related to the main plotline. It’s a shame, because the plotline of a man who has ambitions of becoming one of Harlem’s upper middle-class, and wants to do it legally, yet is plagued with a problematic cousin and a very crooked father, is a fantastic idea.

The main character, Ray Carney, is married with two sweet children. His wife works at a black travel agency and is doing well. In fact, if she knew Carney was into illegal activities, he’d be in a world of trouble. Whitehead has a fantastic imagination, creating a ‘60’s Harlem with entertaining side hustles and illicit operations. If Whitehead would have just stuck to the hustles, the entertaining criminals, and not gone off on odd tangents, this could have been a 5 star for me. Yes, I enjoyed learning a bit of the early NYC history (Central Park, which was Seneca village, forcibly removed black villagers by eminent domain in 1857 to create the park for whites) along with historical information with regard to building the World’s Trade Center. There was most likely more tid-bits that I missed while reading some of his long and involved sentences.

Perhaps the fault is in me, that I didn’t allow enough energy and time to read the story. Because it was Whitehead, I did reread many pages, trying to keep up with the story. Maybe I wanted the writing to be more “street” in line with the shady characters. Whatever the reason, it didn’t work for me……but I’ll still read his next novel because well, it’s Whitehead.

First 200 pages of the story 2-3 stars. Last 100 pages 4-5 stars.

Profile Image for Elle.
584 reviews1,250 followers
Shelved as 'paused'
July 22, 2021
If Colson Whitehead writes it, then I will read it.
Profile Image for Liz.
1,915 reviews2,350 followers
August 19, 2021
Colton Whitehead’s latest is a return to 1959-1961 Harlem. He totally evokes the feel of the time and place. Each one of his words served to bring up the sights, smells and sounds of the place. His descriptions had me in their thrall. It was impossible not to see every scene, so lush were the descriptions.
Ray Carney might be the son of a petty thief, but he seems himself as an upstanding citizen. He was “only slightly bent when it came to being crooked”, not above taking something that had fallen off a truck. But his main bread and butter was his furniture store. His cousin, Freddie, on the other hand, is looking for the big score and draws Ray into the mix. Things with Freddie never go as planned and always end up causing trouble for Ray. Ray starts fencing more, trying to carefully walk the line between the two worlds. “Crooked world, straight world, same rules -everybody had a hand out for the envelope.” As the book goes on, Ray gets drawn further and further into the crooked world and it’s fascinating to see him try to rationalize the change.
Whitehead creates characters that just feel real. Not just Ray, but Freddie, Elizabeth, Pepper; even minor characters like Moskowitz. This book has a lot to say about revenge and suppressed anger, family relations, the urge to get ahead.
But for all that, I was less than completely enchanted. The story was uneven. All too often in the beginning, it was too much talk, not enough action. The humor is very subtle here. Blink and you’ll miss it almost. This is a book that demands you pay attention to every sentence, every word. Things start to pick up around the middle and I enjoyed the second half of the book as the action picked up.
So, a solid 4 stars, but it could have easily been a five.
My thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday for an advance copy of this book.
Profile Image for Angela M (On a little break).
1,270 reviews2,217 followers
October 15, 2021
This novel has been described as a crime story . I not interested in crime stories and I only read it because Colson Whitehead wrote it .

But as I expected, it was much more than about heists and fences and gangsters . Taking place in Harlem in 1959, 1961 and 1964, it’s a striking portrayal of a time and place reflecting on the racism then and there causing us to reflect on the racism here and now.

It’s a captivating story of a man who “was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked …” , and in spite of that slight bent, Ray Carney is a character I liked and will remember.

I received a copy of this book from Doubleday through NetGalley.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,559 reviews1,933 followers
July 7, 2021
There are going to be two different types of readers of this book: those who are familiar with Whitehead's full backlist and those who only know THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and NICKEL BOYS. That latter group is going to be very confused by this book, but if you dive into Whitehead's backlist you know that he switches genres constantly and the only rule is to expect to be surprised by whatever he does next. This is a crime novel in the style of the mid-20th-century, there are all kinds of crooked types, mobsters and fences and guys who do "odd jobs." There are a lot of characters with names like Cheap Brucie and Miami Joe. Set in Harlem, this is also, like SAG HARBOR, a detailed study of a place and time in Black America.

HARLEM SHUFFLE feels a lot like the great crime stories. Even if it's one of Whitehead's most readable books, it's still got a lot to say about how people find themselves involved in crime and how they justify it to themselves. Ray Carney's father was a crook, and he is determined to make something of himself. He's done pretty well when we meet him, he owns a furniture store, he has a wife from a good family, he has a daughter and a baby on the way. But Ray has his eyes on more, imagines moving his family to Riverside Drive. Ray and his store embody a kind of striving, a desire for the trappings of the comfortable middle-class. Unfortunately, Ray's vision of himself is not quite accurate. He is willing to look the other way every now and then when his cousin shows up in a pinch and unload the occasional tv or radio of unknown origin without asking questions.

The novel unfolds in three sections, set a few years apart. And while they are entirely separate stories, they all tie together. Not just because we track Ray over the years, but that you see how the end of one story has led us to this new one. Ray is level-headed but he's also a sucker who is never really willing to stand up and say, "I'm out." We know as we read that it's not so much that Ray isn't cut out for the stuff he's getting deeper and deeper into, it's that no one who gets in that deep tends to end up just fine.

There is an exception to this rule, as the book knows. It's just fine to be up to your neck in illegal stuff if you're rich enough. Each story brings Ray a little bit closer to the kind of power that cannot be stopped by any one man. The step from 1961 to 1964 in particular is a very smart one, there are a lot of similarities between the circumstances in the two stories, and we see how Carney is fully unprepared for what he's gotten himself into. This is not a book where you think, "Oh it'll turn out okay for our guy." It's a book where you constantly think it's not going to turn out well for our guy.

This is a spectacular New York novel. Whitehead maps out the city in great detail, always setting us on a particular block or corner, giving you the lay of the land. The last section is set just after the riots of 1964, which feels like it could have happened yesterday.

I've been reading Whitehead for a very long time and this is right up there as one of his most fun books, even if it's also laced with nonstop dread. It's also readable as hell, with a clipped prose that fits the pulpy subject matter and setting perfectly.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,378 reviews518 followers
October 16, 2021
I suspected this novel wouldn't be for me and unfortunately I was right. Because it is written by Whitehead, there is plenty of good stuff here - a great character in furniture salesman Ray Carney, atmospheric details of Harlem in the 1960s (and racist NYC) and some laugh-out-loud humor. But it didn't come together for me. All the colorful crooks and the wheeling and dealing bored me. I went back and forth between audio and print but interest waned with both.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,493 followers
April 28, 2022
An elevated crime novel

Colson Whitehead is incapable of writing a bad or a dull sentence. And like the late John Updike, he can make any subject pulse with life.

It’s late 50s Harlem, and Ray Carney is trying to make his way up the social and financial ladder as the owner of a furniture store in the predominantly Black and Latino neighbourhood. He’s got a little side hustle buying and reselling hot goods, but mostly he wants to stick to the straight and narrow and provide for his wife Elizabeth, his daughter and a second child who’s on the way.

When his ne’er do well cousin Freddie gets him involved in a hotel robbery heist, he starts associating with some of the city’s thugs. Which is sort of ironic, because his late father was a criminal, so Carney might be a chip off the ol’ block.

These criminals could come in handy, however, if Carney gets in a fix. And over the next few years, as the city goes through some big political and social changes, he does.

While there’s a noir element to the book, Whitehead puts his unique stamp on the crime novel. He respects the conventions of the genre – there are plenty of unsavoury characters, shady deals, middle-of-the-night meetings and more than a little violence – but he doesn’t write down. His characters, even the secondary ones, snap to life with a few vivid details. And his storytelling skills are as strong and as sophisticated as ever.

I loved the contrast between the impulsive, lovable Freddie and the methodical, more responsible Ray. Their bond – the two almost grew up as brothers, since the young Ray lived for a time with Freddie and his mom, Millie – forms the emotional spine of the book.

It took a while to figure out what Whitehead was doing in the novel. Since the novel covers five years, he doesn’t focus on one heist and its outcome, but he does show how one act leads to another... and another. There are three sections in the book, and each one focuses on a big job. By the end, Whitehead shows you how crime can seduce and corrupt, how it exists in all levels of society (regardless of class or background), and how so much human interaction is based on cash-stuffed envelopes being exchanged from hand to hand.

Freddie is a memorable character, and his recounting of two heists provides some of the most exciting passages in the book. But just as intriguing is Pepper, an old school criminal who, it turns out, once worked with Ray’s dad. Whitehead’s ability to get into the minds of both radically different men is astonishing. You could write a damn fine essay about the role of fathers in the novel. (This is a guy-heavy novel; the women, while distinctly drawn, are mostly on the sidelines, with one notable exception.)

One warning: this isn’t exactly a page-turner like one of the pulpy crime novels Freddie himself reads. Whitehead’s prose is so carefully crafted, and the way he approaches things is so unusual – for instance, there’s a whole section on the concept of dorval, Ray’s night time thoughts and activities – that you’ll often wonder where the tale is going.

Don’t worry. Savour the language and the period details – Whitehead had me Googling hotel, cafe and furniture manufacturing names to see if they were real. Admire the way Whitehead addresses racism, not just in an all-too-familiar story of a white cop killing a Black boy, but in the contemptuous way Black customers are treated south of 110th St.

All of this adds up to a crackling good novel.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,017 reviews48.2k followers
September 21, 2021
As the only living writer who’s won two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction — and a National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant — Colson Whitehead risks growing so encrusted with literary prestige that he’s not allowed to have any fun.

But clearly that’s not holding him down.

Yes, Whitehead wrote one of the greatest historical novels about slavery (“The Underground Railroad”), and his last novel was a grisly story — based on real events — about a deadly juvenile detention center in Florida (“The Nickel Boys”). But longtime fans know that he’s also the author of a fantastic zombie novel (“Zone One”), a witty satire about marketing (“Apex Hides the Hurt”) and a delightful fictionalized memoir (“Sag Harbor”).

So perhaps it was only a matter of time before he drove down 125th Street in his native New York City to deliver a wry crime novel. If the ghost of Chester Himes hovers over these pages — think “Colson Comes to Harlem” — there’s nothing derivative about Whitehead’s storytelling. As usual, when he moves into a new genre, he keeps the bones but does his own decorating.

“Harlem Shuffle” takes place in the late. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,685 reviews2,240 followers
September 14, 2021

This story, set in Harlem, begins in 1959 with Ray Carney, a man who owns a furniture and appliance store on 125th Street, the ‘main street’ of Harlem, a street that will also come to be known as Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard years later. But that is twenty-five years in the future as this begins.

To those who know or have dealt with Ray, he is a decent guy, trying to make a decent living selling furniture at a fair price, only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked. A likeable guy to all who meet him, with a wife who is expecting a child - their second. A family man.

It almost doesn’t matter what takes place in the story, this is more of a love letter to this place and this time, an ode to the good and the bad of the time. Sprinkled throughout are references to those places that most people will recognize - the Apollo Theatre, the descriptions of the posters of the time, the rhythm of the city and the people. A slightly mischievous take on the era rather than a dark and sinister tale that seems born of a sentimental fondness for these bygone days. That doesn’t mean that it is devoid of darker, more dangerous moments, those serve to give a sense of a balance.

Harlem has changed since those days, it has become more gentrified in the years since, but Whitehead brilliantly brings the Harlem of that era to life with a nostalgic touch through this story. While this does include tragic moments, there are lighter moments, as well, and so much love for this place and these people.

Published: 14 Sep 2021

Many thanks for the ARC provided by Doubleday Books / Doubleday
Profile Image for Jen.
127 reviews197 followers
November 6, 2021
Have you ever read a book that you knew was objectively good, but you just couldn’t get into? That was this book for me unfortunately. Colson Whitehead created a rich, beautiful world with his depiction of Harlem and gorgeous prose, but his characters didn't resonate with me as they have previously. I just couldn't connect with this. It was a struggle to pick up and almost made it back to the library unfinished, whereas I normally finish things within a day or two. His last (The Nickel Boys), I may not have put down once after I picked it up the first time and I think the difference was that I cared so much more for the characters. Here, we spent so much time with Ray, but I don't know if ever felt like I really knew him, let alone grew to care. 

It was still written extremely well however and I loved the look into Harlem's history. 3.5 rounded up.
Profile Image for Alwynne.
525 reviews485 followers
September 15, 2021
Division’s central to Colson Whitehead’s impressive, Harlem-based novel: the divide between black and white America; the divide that inspired Langston Hughes’s A Dream Deferred; the divided self of Du Bois's concept of double consciousness. In Whitehead’s episodic narrative these resonate through Ray Carney, who’s simultaneously hero and anti-hero. It’s 1959 when Carney’s introduced and he’s already on the road towards achieving a version of the American Dream – an era when that myth still held out a slender form of hope. Carney’s overcome the proverbial difficult, impoverished childhood, created a family and a business. But behind his façade of conformity and hard-working aspiration’s another Carney whose rule-breaking exposes the flaws and fractures in America’s capitalist mythology.

Carney’s a liminal figure in the most literal sense, by day he runs a modest furniture store, by night he’s a fence trading in stolen goods. He’s poised between would-be respectability and the criminal undercurrents unceasingly flowing through Harlem’s streets. Whitehead expertly draws on the sense of place that’s a feature of the best crime fiction, making it clear Carney’s story’s also Harlem’s story. He effortlessly captures Harlem’s flavour, its hum and throb, its rich, turbulent history. Harlem’s indicative of a New York in flux, communities are being eroded, Carney’s childhood landmarks are disappearing, buildings rapidly rise and swiftly fall. Carney’s existence’s typified by constant movement, a state of permanent impermanence - the only way to survive’s to go with the flow. Carney’s desires mirror his surroundings, he’s always focused on the next step, moving out and moving up: an expanding business, a bigger apartment, a better area. Whitehead parallels Carney’s situation with his hapless cousin Freddy, an apt demonstration of the consequences of failing to adapt.

In Harlem Shuffle Whitehead skilfully reworks genre conventions taking admirable advantage of the crime novel’s ability to deliver an engaging story with a generous helping of searing, social critique. His writing’s taut, disciplined, carefully honed, his tone shifts between drily humorous and gently lyrical, plot secondary to character and atmosphere. He imbues his hero with the sympathetic, world-weariness of Chandler’s Marlowe, the melancholy resilience of Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow, and the pragmatic, moral ambiguity of Highsmith’s Ripley; placing Carney in a noirish, corrupt world lacking any semblance of moral certainty, that much more precarious because he’s a Black man in racist, white America. Harlem Shuffle’s a meticulously-realised, compelling piece and I’m already longing for the sequel.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher Fleet, an imprint of Little Brown for the arc.

Rating: 4.5/5
Profile Image for Debra .
2,125 reviews34.9k followers
September 15, 2021
3.5 stars

A love letter to Harlem.

“Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…”

Ray Carney wants to go straight. He really does but when he opens a furniture store and money gets tight so when his cousin Freddy drops off a ring or two, Ray doesn't ask questions. Neither does the jeweler downtown. But it doesn't stop there, good ole Cousin Freddy and his crew plan to rob the “Waldorf of Harlem” Guess what? It doesn't go as planned. Now Ray who hoped to go straight, to provide for his wife and family has a new shadier clientele. Now Ray is walking a straight rope so to speak between being a bad guy/crook and being a hard worker running a business.

"I didn't mean to get you in trouble."

Set in the 1950's and 1960's, Colson Whitehead gives readers a glimpse into Harlem during that time. Harlem is very much a character in this book as well.

Colson Whitehead first caught my attention with The Underground Railroad and I was curious about this book. While this one did not grab me or leave me thinking as The Underground Railroad did. I found this book slow to start and it took some time for it to grab my attention. But it eventually grabbed my attention and I found this to be enjoyable. He is a gifted writer and storyteller. He does a little humor here and if you are looking for this book to be like his other books you will either be disappointed or pleasantly surprised. While I enjoyed this one, I wasn’t blown away.

Thank you to Doubleday and NetGalley who provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All the thoughts and opinions are my own.

Read more of my reviews at www.openbookposts.com
Profile Image for Meike.
1,445 reviews2,180 followers
January 22, 2022
Now a Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award 2021 (Fiction)
Colson Whitehead switches gears and gives us a crime thriller / sociogram of civil rights-era Harlem. Divided in three parts set in 1959, 1961, and 1964, thus culminating in the Harlem riot, the story centers on protagonist Ray Carney, the son of a criminal. He is is a first-generation college student und runs a furniture business while himself leading a double-life and being involved in crime schemes: The official business is used as a front to cover up illegal actvities. Most notably, Carney is drawn into a heist in a fancy hotel - the consequences reverberate throughout the text. Married to the daughter of a wealthy, influential man, Carney aspires to leave his dubious past behind, only to discover that the world he wants to belong is run by the same dubious principles.

Whitehead has crafted a pulpy crime novel - you could easily picture Tarantino turning this into a gritty spectacle. But most of all, this book illustrates a certain era in Harlem, capturing the atmosphere and the situation of (Black) people at the time: Kennedy, the Harlem riot, police violence, the spread of heroin addiction, discrimination. The author himself hails from New York and has by now produced quite a few books about or set in his hometown (The Colossus of New York, Sag Harbor, Zone One).

While Whitehead clearly put a lot of thought and effort into inventing a vast cast of characters, I found it a little tedious to follow all of them and work through their connections - but then again, I'm not much of a crime novel reader. I would have preferred to learn more about the history and the political circumstances, and less about the intricate vendettas played out in this tale of family loyalty, humiliation and revenge.

This is not going to win Whitehead the third Pulitzer in a row, but hey, that can't be the goal: This author apparently aims to cover a wide range of genres and topics, depicting life in the US from different angles. Colson Whitehead, still a master storyteller, but alas, this is not my kind of book.

You can learn more about the German translation (also titled "Harlem Shuffle") in our latest podcast episode.
Profile Image for Faith.
1,800 reviews479 followers
September 28, 2021
“…Carney knew crime’s hours when he saw them – dorvay was crooked heaven, when the straight world slept and the bent got to work. An arena for thieving and scores, break-ins and hijacks, when the con man polishes the bait and the embezzler cooks the books. In-between things: night and day, rest and duty, the no-good and the up-and-up. Pick up a crowbar, you know the in-between is where all the shit goes down.”

“Carney didn’t like the notion of dumping bodies in the back of his truck, deceased or not deceased or any which way. Once is bad luck; twice and it looks like you’re getting accustomed.”

“The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” were very serious books. I know that I am in the minority here, but I didn’t love either of them. “Harlem Shuffle” is a crime novel with a lot of style and I enjoyed it more than the other books I’ve read by this author. It’s rhythm was quick and the language was colorful. The riffs were enhanced by Dion Graham’s narration of the audiobook.

Ray Carney is a business school graduate who is now the owner of a furniture store in Harlem. His in laws think that their daughter Elizabeth married beneath her, but Ray is hustling his way up in the world. Some of the merchandise that finds its way to Ray was not necessarily acquired legally.

This book is set in the 1960s and is comprised of parts arranged in chronological order. Each part deals with another point in Ray’s life in which justice may be served in an unconventional way. A lot of the difficulties faced by Ray are caused by his cousin Freddie, who gets Ray involved in some ill-conceived crimes. However, Ray is not an innocent victim. He knows how to take care of business, as evidenced by a scheme to get revenge when a banker fails to respect the quid pro quo of a bribe. There was definitely more style than substance in this book, but I liked it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.
Profile Image for Kon R..
219 reviews92 followers
February 9, 2022
Whoever thought this book was the next Ocean's Eleven based on the synopsis read waaaaaaay too far into it. That's like a book about plumbers, so you assume it's about Mario and Luigi saving the Princess from Bowser. 🤣

Sorry for the rant, but I had to get that off my chest.

I really enjoyed my first Colson Whitehead read. He has a talent for writing lively characters and injecting humor into humorless situations. I loved the writing style. It oozed with literary swagger at every turn. The stories reminded me of the various "characters" I grew up with in New York City, but to an exaggerated level; Everyone has a hustle going while keeping an eye out for cops. They made me feel right at home. Read this one for the interactions not actions.
Profile Image for Nancy.
349 reviews113 followers
September 20, 2021
Harlem Shuffle is the story of Ray Carney. Being the son of a crook, he strives to lead an upstanding life as the owner of a furniture store in Harlem. He is happily married with children and has goals for their life such as owning a house on Riverside Drive. Everything is going well until unknown to Ray, his cousin Freddie volunteers him as the fence for a heist. I was not familiar with the term fence being someone who moves stolen goods, so that was an interesting fun fact to learn.

Based on the synopsis, I was really expecting the heists to be a major part of the story, but they actually are not. Unfortunately, going into this book with that expectation probably played a part in my rating of the book. This book focuses on Ray and his internal struggle between his wants/goals and the slippery slope of what he needs to do to get there.

I found the pacing inconsistent and the story at times moves quite slowly. This book is told in 3 parts: 1959, 1961, and 1964. I found the time jumps to be jarring to the point that the story seemed disjointed and confusing in parts. There are so many minor characters to keep track of in this book, and the author went into a lot of detail regarding their backstory which didn't necessarily serve the story in any way. That being said, my favorite character was Pepper. I wanted more of him and always looked forward to his return to the story.

Colson Whitehead is a wordsmith and a very talented author, and I like that he moves fluidly between genres. His writing in this book painted a very vivid picture of living in 1960s Harlem. I've only read one other book by this author and really enjoyed it, so I look forward to catching up on some of his previous books. 3 stars.

Many thanks to Doubleday and Netgalley for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Kasa Cotugno.
2,323 reviews427 followers
December 7, 2022
Harlem Shuffle represents a shift of focus for a favorite writer who has won prizes for his recent explorations of the African-American experience. On the surface, it is lighter, but there are undercurrents of tragedy and rage that make this such a rich, satisfying book.

At the center is Ray Carney, a loyal, loving family man with a furniture store on 125th Street, who has more than a touch of the rascal in him thanks to circumstances and dna. Colson Whitehead has deliberately set his story in 1959, pre-tech overhaul, pre-gentrification of the neighborhood. There is some gorgeous writing, a lot of nostalgia, and memorable sentences such as "It was a beautiful night to be out in the city and up to no good." Think that sums it up for me.
Profile Image for Lorna.
629 reviews338 followers
April 12, 2022
Harlem Shuffle was an entirely different book from two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, Colson Whitehead's previous books both awarded Pulitzers, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. While I loved both of those books, I totally understood when Colson Whitehead said that he was emotionally drained in authoring those two books and he needed to do something less intense; and his readers will most likely agree in that we needed to read a less intense book. We all needed a break, not to say that Harlem Shuffle was not intense, it was, but it also had a playful and raucous side. I loved this book, and I loved the characters.

The book is divided into three parts, the first part being about the truck inherited by Ray Carney from his father with a surprising and generous gift. It also acquaints us with the legendary heist in which The Hotel Theresa was the scene of a spectacular robbery. This book takes place in Harlem in the late 1950s and early 1960s as we are witness to the upheaval in civil rights demonstrations and the Ku Klux Klan as they fight to maintain control. This will give one an idea as to the historical context:

"The red carpet outside the Waldorf of Harlem was the theater for daily and sometimes hourly spectacles, whether it was the sight of the heavyweight champ waving to fans as he climbed into a Cadillac, or a wrung-out jazz singer splashing out of a Checker cab at three a.m. with the devil's verses in her mouth. The Theresa desegregated in 1940, after the neighborhood tipped over from Jews and Italians and became the domain of Southern blacks and West Indians. Everyone who came uptown had crossed some variety of violent ocean."

At the core of this story is the relationship between two cousins, Ray Carney and Freddie. It seems that they had grown up together and were like brothers, but they had different goals and aspirations. Ray had gone to college and married his high school sweetheart, expanding a used furniture store through perseverance and hard work and sometimes dabbling in a little fencing of goods. However, Freddie was living on the fringe and seemed involved in one caper after another, but he tended to involve Ray Carney much to Ray's consternation.

"Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked. . . "

"Carney took the previous tenants' busted schemes and failed dreams as a kind of fertilizer that helped his own ambitions prosper, the same way a fallen oak in its decomposition nourishes the acorn."

"The cousins had diverged. Their mothers were sisters, so they shared some of the same material but had bent their different ways over the years. Like the row of buildings across the street--other people and the years tugging them away from the original plans. The city took everything into its clutches and sent it every which way. Maybe you had a say in which direction, and maybe you didn't."

The second part is the Dorvay, the wake sleep experienced in the middle of the night when one's senses are heightened. It was during this time that Ray Carney contemplated his dangerous plight figuring out ways to overcome the many obstacles he was confronting. It was also a time that Ray imagined life in a brownstone on Riverside Drive as he gazed upon them from The Big Apple Diner dreaming of what the many lives were about in the brownstones and hoping that he would one day able to get his furniture store to the place where he could afford to move his wife Elizabeth and their young children, May and John.

The third part features Harlem as a vibrant character where a lot of dreams are realized. Much of the architecture and architectural history of Harlem is explored in this section. It was a very enjoyable book and a different view of the range of Colson Whitehead's writing.
Profile Image for Linda.
Author 2 books136 followers
November 1, 2021
"I'm describing a Harlem that's in decline in the '50s and '60s. And now it's gentrified and revitalized. And that's the city. It's always being laid low. By 9/11, by Covid, and we bounce back."
Colson Whitehead, New York Times Interview, September 8, 2021

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Colson Whitehead is the consummate New Yorker. His parents are from Harlem and raised him in Midtown and Upper Manhattan. He has lived in Brooklyn and currently resides on the Upper West Side. Whitehead describes his book Harlem Shuffle as a "love letter to Harlem," He vividly recreates the neighborhood's ambiance and spirit in troubled times.

His protagonist, Ray Carney, is the son of a petty thief who desires legitimacy and respectability. He pursues the traditional paths. He works his way through Queens College, receives a degree in business, marries, and has two kids. At heart, he is a family man who wants to build a better life for his kids by starting his own business, a furniture store on 125th Street.

However, for Carney to succeed, he must contend with the institutional racism of the society at large, the colorism and snobbery of the local Harlem elites, and the continuous demands for "protection money" from local cops and criminals. To survive and strive, he must master a complex juggling act and, at times, draw upon resources from his past, which returns to haunt him through his ne'er do well cousin, Freddie, who is relentless in his desire to involve Ray in his schemes. A pragmatist, bemused by the moral facades and pretenses of the powers that be, Ray navigates the world of heists and sham bribes against the backdrop of the period's social history.

Whitehead is a wordsmith. He graces the page with crisp dialogue, wry observations, and finely drawn characters. Harlem Shuffle is a portrait of a neighborhood and people he deeply cares about and understands. Ray Carney is symbolic of the city Whitehead loves. He is often laid low but manages to bounce back.
Profile Image for Brandice.
798 reviews
July 29, 2022
Harlem Shuffle follows Ray Carney, a furniture salesman and store owner in Harlem in the 1960s. He and his wife are expecting their second child. Cash is tight and Ray doesn’t question the origin of pieces when they come into his store. He gets pulled into a heist by his cousin, Freddie, but it doesn’t go as planned. Now Ray finds himself drawn into a new circle of clientele, forcing him to navigate a double life — One as an upstanding family man and businessman, the other as a crook. Can he pull it off?

I’m not sure any Colson Whitehead book will ever surpass my love for The Nickel Boys but that won’t stop me from continuing to read anything by him! My enjoyment of Harlem Shuffle was definitely enhanced by listening to the audiobook, read by Dion Graham, my favorite male narrator.
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,845 reviews16.3k followers
November 28, 2021
This book moves and breathes and is alive with the vibrancy of 50s and 60s Harlem.

Pulitzer Prize winning writer Colson Whitehead has long been on my radar and I had the chance to give this one some time and it was a pleasure to read.

Some writers can, with the black and white typed word, give us the color and life of New York and Whitehead has here demonstrated his virtuosity with this story of crime and family and … furniture.

Ray Carney, the son of infamous shady small time hood Mike, is trying to support his family legitimately with his own furniture store on 125th street. Whitehead describes the obstacles he’s overcome in the still racially divided city and culture, and though he’s smart and works hard, like Michael Corleone in Godfather III, the crime world keeps pulling him back in.

“Strivers grasped for something better-and crooks schemes about how to manipulate the present system. The world as it might be versus the world as it was. But perhaps Carney was being too stark. Plenty of crooks were strivers, and plenty of strivers bent the law.”
Ray’s past comes most frequently to him in the person of his cousin Freddy. While Ray has striven to make something of himself, Freddy has gone the other way and is constantly in trouble.

And Ray kind of is too.

While much of Ray’s inventory is new, some is “previously owned” and some of the previous owners had some help giving up the goods. Ray does some mild fencing, mainly for Freddy, but when Freddy and a crew ups the ante, Ray gets dragged in.

This is how Whitehead draws us into this world of Harlem in the late 50s and ends contemporaneously with the Harlem riots of 1964 when a young man is gunned down by racist white police.

One device the author uses that I found especially noteworthy was the concept of segmented sleep, or what the French called dorveille, or second sleep. Described in atavistic fashion as a harkening back to pre-industrial times, Ray wakes around midnight and is up a couple of hours “settling accounts”. In my mind, this just made Ray seem more hard working and industrious.

Most noteworthy was Whitehead’s brilliant use of language and his mastery of prose.

And at the end of the day, I liked Ray, like that he wanted to provide for his family, liked that he allowed himself to bend but not be too crooked; liked him for playing the game his way as best he could.

A very good read, recommended.

Profile Image for Ari Levine.
182 reviews130 followers
August 7, 2021
3.5, rounded down. Good pulpy escapist fun from a supremely talented writer with nothing left to prove.

Whitehead's won the Pulitzer twice in the past five years for The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, both of which are serious contenders for Great American Novel of the first quarter of the 21st century (the latter even more than the former). Harlem Shuffle is probably going to confound readers who haven't been following Whitehead's entire career, the only constant of which has been wild shifts in genre. It's a loving homage to crime novels of the 1950s and 60s, especially the grandmaster of mid-century Black crime fiction, Chester Himes.

This is a vividly and richly detailed reconstruction of the overlapping criminal underworld and legitimate overworld of Harlem between 1959 and 1964, where NYC racial politics is inescapable-- especially the brutality of racist cops, the pervasive corruption of the political machine, and economic exploitation by the city's white elite. But Whitehead is more interested here in building multi-layered and suspenseful crime stories with intricate plots and memorable characters, especially a parade of hit men, numbers runners, hired thugs, and drug barons.

This is really three linked novellas with the same protagonist, Ray Carney, who is navigating both the crooked and the legitimate sides of Harlem as the upwardly-mobile owner of a furniture store on 125th Street who also fences stolen jewels and televisions on the side. While scheming his way into a deluxe apartment on Riverside Drive, Ray finds himself (unwittingly at first) dragged into a hotel jewel heist by his crooked cousin Freddie.

The college-educated son of a criminal who inherited more than his father's ill-gotten money, Ray is a self-made man who thinks he's smarter than everyone else, and begins to succumb to the lure of suitcases of cash, while keeping his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of a wealthy lawyer from Striver's Row, in the dark. And just like Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III, just when Ray thought he was out, they pull him back in.

Some quibbles: While the plotting is masterful, the storytelling here seemed a bit rushed, with an over-reliance on flashbacks to provide just-in-time exposition. And the info-dumps on New York racial history, the product of serious research, don't feel smoothly integrated into the novel's action.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Doubleday for providing me with an ARC of Harlem Shuffle in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
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